1924 Copyright restrictions expire

The US signed on with the Berne Convention1 for copyright, and enacted changes to its copyright law in 1978. Under the new laws, copyright no longer required to be registered, nor even denoted in the work itself. A creative work subject to copyright earned those protections upon being recorded to media. The restriction period also lengthened, to meet the international treaty’s minimum of life of the author +50 years. For works where the creator was anonymous or used a pseudonym, and works made for hire the restriction period was 75 years from point of publication.

This would have allowed works published in 1923, or whose authors had passed in 1928, to move out of copyright restriction and into the public domain in 1998. However, in 1998 president Clinton enacted an extension to copyright protections known as the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act. This shifted protection for authored works to life of author +70 years, and works that were anonymous, pseudonymous, or works for hire to 95 years from point of publication.

Since I began my library career in 2006, I have been very aware of the 1923 date. We used this date as a marker for which works were in the public domain, and which still remained under copyright protection.For me, this date was key in our Retrospective Dissertation Scanning Project and corresponding outreach efforts, as well as digitization of print collections. Anything domestic work published in 1923 or earlier was good to go without further consideration. Anything 1924 or after, well, we only did the extra research if we really felt a strong need for those works – otherwise we just passed them by until the day they would slip into the public domain.

The start of 2019 saw the completion of that 95 year protection, and as such, we move the public domain date in the US forward by a year. Our workflows will have to be adjusted (slightly), and documentation updated not only now, but every subsequent year. I know it’s kind of a weird thing to geek out about, but I was giddy when I was at a conference in mid-2018 and learned of this new wave of materials that, as of yesterday, are open for reuse, digitization, derivative works and more.

So there it is, a post about work and something in the outside world that is making a positive impact on my day-to-day. And it makes me smile.


  1. Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works (here is a starting point to learn more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berne_Convention)
  2. Some works may have moved into the public domain earlier, depending on the date of death of a known author, or other factors, but having a single date to pin-point made good sense for library workflows.
  3. Link to the PDF explaining the change, clipped above https://www.copyright.gov/history/lore/pdfs/201812%20CLore_December2018.pdf?loclr=twcop 
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